by Ray Rhamey
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Submissions sought. Get fresh eyes on your opening page. Submission directions below.
The Flogometer challenge: can you craft a first page that compels me to turn to the next page? Caveat: Please keep in mind that this is entirely subjective.
Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.
What’s a first page in publishingland? In a properly formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page. Directions for submissions are below—they include a request to post the rest of the chapter, but that’s optional.
Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this checklist of first-page ingredients from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling.
Donald Maass,, literary agent and author of many books on writing, says, “Independent editor Ray Rhamey’s first-page checklist is an excellent yardstick for measuring what makes openings interesting.”
A First-page Checklist
- It begins to engage the reader with the character
- Something is wrong/goes wrong or challenges the character
- The character desires something.
- The character takes action. Can be internal or external action: thoughts, deeds, emotions. This does NOT include musing about whatever.
- There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
- It happens in the NOW of the story.
- Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
- Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
- The one thing it must do: raise a story question.
Paul sends the first chapter of The Vampire in the Basement. Here are the first 17 lines. The rest of the chapter follows the break so you can turn the page.
Monday evening. I lay on my bed, gazing up at the ceiling. I had a ton of homework to do, but my books sat untouched on my desk. Today had been another forgettable day at school, and I wasn’t forgetting it quickly enough.
My twin brother, Jez, appeared in the doorway. “Josh,” he said. “You need to see this.”
I followed him to the master bedroom. Jez pointed out the window. Down below, Doug’s station wagon was parked in the driveway. My foster father, Doug, and his drinking buddy Shane struggled to lift a large steamer trunk out the back of the old Ford.
“Big deal,” I said. “So they’re swiping antiques now.”
Look again,” said Jez. “Does that symbol look familiar to you?”
Symbol? What symbol? Oh. There it was: a black hieroglyphic hand, etched onto the lid of the trunk. I had seen that before, but where? My heart skipped a beat.
“Was that in one of Dad’s books?” I whispered.
Jez nodded. “I don’t remember what it stands for though.”
Probably nothing good. We would find out soon enough. Doug and Shane hauled the trunk onto the front porch. Those two idiots were about to bring it into the house.
The front door opened and closed. I made my way downstairs. Doug and Shane were (snip)
The writing is good, and I like the voice. The scene is set clearly, and the “normal” world quickly established (homework to do, etc.). But what of tension? Just about the only story question that comes to my mind is what’s in the trunk. But there are no stakes. The only hint of jeopardy—of something going wrong—is that there’s probably nothing good about what is happening.
That’s not enough for this reader. There’s good stuff to come—the twin brother, for one thing, seems to be a ghost only the protagonist can see. Most of the rest of the chapter is still exposition and backstory, all done well, but still tension-free. The trunk turns out to be unopenable to ordinary means—chisels, saws, lock picks, etc. But, in addition to the ghost, another supernatural element turns up, and the chapter ends with the trunk about to be opened.
But still, at this point, nothing is wrong or goes wrong for the protagonist. Other than the mystery of what is in the trunk, there’s no actual story here. I think this needs to start later or, perhaps, with some supernatural element raising its head to cause trouble for the boy. There’s good stuff here, but we need to get to the story much sooner. Try just starting with that something going wrong and see how much of the backstory is truly necessary and what can be woven in to what’s happening.
Submitting to the Flogometer:
Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):
- your title
- your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
- Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ.
- Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
- And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that’s okay.
- If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
- If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.
Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.
Were I you, I’d examine my first page in the light of the first-page checklist before submitting to the Flogometer.
Flogging the Quill © 2017 Ray Rhamey, chapter © 2017 by Paul.
My books. You can read sample chapters and learn more about the books here.
Writing Craft Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling
Fantasy (satire) The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles
Mystery (coming of age) The Summer Boy
Science Fiction Hiding Magic
Science Fiction Gundown Free ebooks.
. . . in the foyer. They had placed the steamer trunk on the rug. Doug beamed at me, while Shane scowled.
“Good. You’re here.” Doug gestured to the trunk. “Usual rules apply: don’t touch it, don’t go near it, don’t talk about it to anyone outside this room.”
Up close, the trunk looked a lot fancier. It was made of dark, polished oak, reinforced with burnished brass fittings. It had a large keyhole, one that would be easily picked by Doug. The whole thing was practically brand new too. I caught a whiff of fresh lacquer.
The hieroglyphic hand stood out like a biohazard neon sign. It practically beckoned to me, daring me to remember what it signified.
“Where did you find this thing?” I asked.
“That’s none of your business,” said Shane.
Doug held up a hand. “It’s okay. Josh is one of us.” He looked directly at me. “Isn’t that right?”
I nodded. As if I could have said no.
Doug clapped Shane on the back. “Let’s get this downstairs.”
The two men grunted and strained as they brought the trunk to the kitchen and into the basement.
Ah, the basement…
Doug was a locksmith by trade. He ran a home-and-small-office security business in Chatswood, but he also moonlighted for a number of procurement specialists operating in the North Sydney area. Doug kept his toys down here. Lock-pick guns, master keys, listening devices, snake-eye cameras, remotes, receivers, e-Tag encoders, and RF-ID read-writers were just some of the cool stuff to be found here. Doug’s workbench was a treasure trove of law-breaking potential.
Two long tables stood, side by side, in the centre of this unusually spacious basement. These were metal tables with reinforced legs, built for supporting heavy equipment. This month, they carried a number of wall safes, mostly Chubb and CMI models. One lonely Atlas sat by itself.
Heaven forbid any police detectives should come down here. Doug would have a lot of explaining to do.
Doug and Shane placed the trunk up against the far wall from the stairs. They heaved a sigh of relief.
Shane glared at me. “What are you still doing here?”
“Oh, bugger me,” said Doug. “That’s right. You wanted to know where it came from.” He walked over to the workbench and leaned against it. “What do you know of the Stark Hill Reclamation Project?”
Nothing. Was he talking about that cemetery?
“Shane’s part of the work crew there.” Doug smirked. “His PO thought it’d be a good fit. Isn’t that right, Shane? You get to earn an honest dollar for a change.”
“Keep pushing, mate.”
“PO?” I looked at Doug questioningly.
Shane’s face darkened. “One of these days, I’ll do the world a favour and silence that son of a bitch.”
Doug snorted. “Don’t be an idiot if you can help it. If your PO goes missing, who do you think the police will suspect first?”
“You’re underestimating just how many of us want that bloke dead. In any case, it’d be worth it just to see the fat fuck begging for his life.”
Doug shook his head. “Anyway, long story short: the crew up at Stark Hill found the trunk. We liberated it from them. Enough said.”
I frowned. “That doesn’t make any sense. Why the hell would either one of you be interested in a piece of junk?”
Doug and Shane exchanged looks.
“It’s a bit more complicated than that,” said Doug. “The crew uncovered the trunk up in an attic somewhere.” He snorted. “They freaked out. Shane called me to come take a look. I made a judgement call.”
Shane glowered at him. “First off, the guys found it in the old, abandoned records office. Secondly, it was inside some bricked-up and plastered-over closet.”
A chill ran down my spine. Creepy. Very urban legendary.
“Thirdly,” Shane continued, “we didn’t freak out just like that. The foreman checked and double-checked the lists. He came up goose eggs. There was no record of the trunk or who it might have belonged to. That’s when we tried to open it.” Shane looked away. “Some of the guys started whispering that the site was haunted, and that the trunk was cursed.”
Doug laughed. “Mouth-breathers, the lot of them. That’s why you shouldn’t believe everything those morons tell you. Some of them have been working at cemeteries for too long. More superstitious than a busload of gamblers, they are.”
Shane eyed his friend coldly. “Mate, you weren’t there. Don’t you dare talk like you know what’s up. That particular building would have given anyone the heebie-jeebies.”
“What happened when you tried to open it?” I asked.
Shane looked pained. “We couldn’t. We tried everything. That damned lock wouldn’t give. Then we tried cutting it open. We used saws, drills, eventually even a jackhammer. We couldn’t even dent it.”
Doug chuckled. “See what I mean? Superstitious fools.”
“I’d like to see you try it,” said Shane.
Doug rolled up his sleeves. He took a set of old fashioned lock-picks from his workbench, the kind needed for such antique locks. He crouched in front of the trunk and got to work.
Snap! One of his lock-picks broke the second he applied any pressure. Doug put another one in. That one broke after some fiddling around. Shane grinned. Shaking his head, Doug tried a third lock-pick. It broke immediately after he stuck it inside the keyhole.
“Told you,” said Shane.
“Sod off!” Doug snarled. “Nothing’s unbreakable, okay?”
He went back to the workbench and returned with a nasty-looking circular saw. He revved it a few times before he pressed the blade to the trunk. Sparks flew. Doug switched off the saw. The teeth had been dulled to mere nubs.
As for the trunk, there wasn’t even a scratch. Not even the lacquer had been disturbed.
“Now do you believe me?” said Shane.
Doug shook his head in disbelief. “This is bullshit.”
“It’s the seal,” whispered Jez’s voice in my ear.
I spun around. Jez was looking at us from the top of the stairs, silhouetted by the light from the kitchen. I hate it when he does that.
“You mean the hand symbol?” I whispered back.
He nodded. “So long as the seal remains on the trunk, that trunk cannot be opened or broken into.”
“Is that what the symbol means?”
Jez shrugged. I shook my head. Dad and his books. That man had a lot of secrets.
“Who’s he talking to?” Shane asked.
Doug rolled his eyes. “How many times have I explained? That’s how Josh works things out in his head. He’s… unusual that way.”
Unusual. That was the polite way of putting it. I hadn’t told Doug about Jez, and I never would. My brother, Jeremy, died when he was twelve, when I was twelve. When Jez first appeared to me post mortem, I made the mistake of telling my foster family at the time. It did not go down well. The doctors used terms such as psychosis, hallucination, and post-traumatic stress. They prescribed therapy and medication. Lots of medication. None of which helped. Soon afterwards, my foster family returned me to the shelter. I had since learnt to shut up about Jez.
“You’re not going to be able to open it,” I said. Oops. I shouldn’t have said anything.
“And why is that?” said Doug. He had this look on his face.
“No reason. It’s just… if I told you, you wouldn’t believe me.”
Doug took a step towards me. Shane too.
“Try me,” said Doug.
Shit. This was going to suck.
“Okay. Now please take this with a grain of salt. It’s just a theory, and it doesn’t quite make a lot of sense, not yet, anyway. You know that weird hand symbol on top of the trunk? I think it…” My voice died. Not even I could stand to say it. Even I didn’t want to believe in this sort of crap.
Doug raised an eyebrow. “What ‘hand’ symbol?”
“The one on the lid. It’s quite obvious.” How could they not have noticed it?
Doug and Shane stared at the trunk.
“It’s right here.” I pointed.
They shook their heads.
“There’s nothing there,” said Doug.
Shane growled. “I think someone’s fucking with us.”
What the hell was going on here? Were these two for real?
“Guys, wait…” I backed away towards the stairs.
“They can’t see it,” whispered Jez. “Only we can.”
I turned to Jez. “Are you saying it doesn’t exist?”
“That’s it,” said Shane. “Enough bullshit.” He cracked his knuckles as he advanced on me. “Time to knock some sense into this kid.”
“Wait.” Doug held up a hand. He studied my face. “The kid’s not lying.”
Thank you, Doug.
Shane turned to him. “Are you fucking shitting me?”
“Josh doesn’t lie well,” Doug explained. “I’ve seen him try. I’d know if he were lying.”
“So what does this mean?”
Good question. One I’d like answered too.
Doug turned to me. “What does it look like exactly? Can you describe it?”
“It’s about the size of a soccer ball. It’s a human hand, palm-open, fingers spread, but the art style is hieroglyphic. There are other symbols all about it that I don’t recognise. Maybe Greek letters? It’s kind of scary-looking.”
“He’s making it up,” Shane declared.
“I’m not making this up!”
Doug knelt down in front of the trunk. He ran his fingers over where the hand symbol was. He turned to me. “Can you jot down what you see on a piece of paper? We could then do an image search on Google. See what that turns up.”
That was a surprisingly good idea–I should have thought of it first. I ran upstairs to my room and returned with a 2B pencil and a sketchpad from art class. I sat down in front of the antique trunk and began to draw the eye.
Shane sniffed. “I’m getting a beer.” He stamped his way upstairs.
As I copied down the hand and its surrounding symbols, the strangest notion crept into my head: this entire image had been drawn with a particular stroke ordering. Every stroke mattered, from the hand itself, down to the letters surrounding it.
“That’s right.” Jez was now beside me. “It’s like Chinese writing. Ordering is important.”
“How do you know this?”
Jez traced the symbol in the air with his finger. On a hunch, I put down the pencil and sketchpad, and I placed my finger on the symbol. What if I did the same?
My heart thumped in my chest as I followed the lines in exactly the same order Jez had showed me. I completed the hand and then finished off each of the smaller symbols. Then I waited with bated breath to see what would happen.
Ten seconds passed. Nothing happened.
“Weird,” said Jez. “I could have sworn that was the right thing to do.”
Doug came over. “Why have you stopped?”
“One sec,” I told him. “I’m trying to figure something out.” I turned to Jez. “I think you’re on the right track.”
My dead brother had traced the strokes in the order the symbol had been drawn. Somehow he knew or he could sense it. Assuming he was right, what then would happen if I traced it in reverse?
I held my breath as I did exactly that, starting from the symbols orbiting the hand and ending with the outline of the hand. This time, as soon as I withdrew my finger, something happened.
The entire symbol bloomed into whiteness so bright that I had to shield my eyes. Then it was gone. No trace remained. It was as if it had never been there.
“I know that look,” said Doug. “Something’s happened, and it’s not a good something.”
I rubbed my eyes, trying to clear away the spots in my vision. Nothing. I willed myself to see the eye again. No good. It was well and truly gone. I ran my fingers over the wood’s surface. Cold. Smooth. Untouched.
“Josh!” cried Doug. “Just tell me what’s going on.”
“What’s gone? The symbol?”
I nodded miserably.
Doug stared at the trunk. “Are you sure it’s gone?”
“Yeah. Pretty sure.”
The sound of slow-clapping drifted down to us. It was Shane. He stood at the top of the stairs, leaning over the railing, leering down at us. A bottle of beer sat on the handhold beside him.
“Well-played!” Shane said. “So this ‘invisible’ symbol, that only you can see, has now vanished, all because you ran your fingers over it? Is that what you’re saying? Well-played indeed!” He took a swig of beer and belched.
Bloody Shane. I groaned silently.
Doug turned to face me, doubt growing in his eyes, disappointment soon to follow. Shane descended the stairs. This time, Doug wasn’t going to stop him, I just knew it. My heart leapt to my throat. I cast about for some explanation–any explanation.
Jez had vanished. Where was he when I really needed him?
The problem was Shane had a really good point. It did look bad. If I were in his shoes, I probably wouldn’t believe me either.
“Josh,” said Doug. He had an odd inflection in his voice. “You’re not making this up, are you? Because you know better than to do that.”
Shane reached the bottom of the stairs.
Why-oh-why did that bloody seal have to disappear?
Wait. What was that word again? Jez had used it earlier. Seal. Of course! I should have realised this earlier. By tracing over the seal in reverse order to how it had been placed, I had somehow erased it.
No seal, no longer unbreakable.
“Doug,” I cried. “Try opening the trunk now.”
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